Strange as it may sound, Jitu Rai wasn’t aware of the Olympics until 2012. Now, such is the faith of fellow shooters that they believe the ‘Naib Subedar’ will start India’s campaign with a medal today at the Olympic Shooting Centre.
“Jitu is the only one in the contingent I can bet on to win a medal,” said 2012 London Games silver medallist Vijay Kumar.
Rai has come a long way to gain the confidence of his senior in the Army and others. Earlier, life was far removed from making it big in shooting, let alone taking up a shooting station in sport’s biggest conglomeration.
“I have a confession to make. I didn’t know about the Olympics till 2012 when Vijay sahab won the medal in London. Even then, I didn’t think I was good enough to make the India squad. There was no urge to do these things then,” said Rai.
He still remembers his first ‘ustad’ from the Gorkha Regiment, who nudged him into shooting. Had it not been for Naib Subedar Garvaraj Rai, Jitu wouldn’t have shared space with global stars.
“Garvaraj sahab is retiring on August 1. I will always be grateful, he gave me the first chance as I was happy shooting the 9mm pistol at Army ranges,” he said.
Now a regular at the Army’s Marksman Unit (AMU) in Mhow, a setback was in store when he failed to up his game and was asked to return to his unit after a brief stint at the AMU in 2010.
Unfazed, he came back to the AMU after two years, and the rest is history.
No looking back
From a relatively unknown name, Rai hit the spotlight in 2014 when he won three World Cup medals in a span of nine days, starting with silver in 50metre pistol at Munich. He then won gold in 10m air pistol and silver in 50m pistol at Maribor.
The run continued at the Incheon Asian Games with gold in 50m pistol. The result was the same at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games. With each victory, Jitu built a reputation that was rarely associated with an Indian shooter.
He hit a trough last year. A bronze in air pistol at the Changwon (South Korea) World Cup in April was followed by another third place at the Asian Air Gun Championship in New Delhi. This had naysayers casting doubts on his ability to hit bullseye in Rio.
The 25-year-old took it in his stride and came up with a strong response. Gold in 50m pistol at the Bangkok World Cup was followed by silver in air pistol at Baku this year.
Vijay attributes this ability of Rai to being uncomplicated. “He is hardly seen with a mental trainer at the ranges. I don’t think he ever needs one. We have a lot of shooters who analyse and over-analyse a shot or mistake, he forgets about it. Once training is done, he never sticks around. He is a simple guy and this is his biggest strength,” he said.
Simplicity is a true reflection of the man who was born in humble surroundings in Nepal’s Sankhuwa Sabha district. He now carries the expectations of billion-plus Indians since taking up home in Uttar Pradesh after joining the Army in 2006.
“I come from a village and I will stay that way. Even if I buy and wear expensive clothes, I’ll look like a villager, so there is no point in pretending,” said Rai.
According to him, the family had no money to spend on vacations, but there was no dearth of food. “We never had to beg for food, but yes we had no money. I think I have done okay now. I am happy because I never thought I’ll achieve the things I have. I am from a village but am on YouTube now,” he said.
Still attached to his land, he contributed over `15 lakh for the construction of a temple and gave `5 lakh to the village panchayat. “I am not selfish. Money is good but we need to help out people. I am not doing it for publicity, but because I want to. Even when I didn’t have money, I brought home a volleyball, net and football in 2008 when I returned to the village after joining the Army,” he explained.
Cut to the task on hand, and the simpleton in him comes to the fore. “Probably, I shouldn’t say this but I am a little afraid because whatever I have done is in the past now. This is a new experience, and guess it happens to many.”